Three International Truths about Volunteer Management
By Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.
Some form of volunteering exists in every country in the world, even if the community needs and the institutions with which volunteers serve are very different from one another. And if there are volunteers, there are leaders of volunteers, too – who come in all shapes and sizes, paid and unpaid, and with many varied position titles.
In 2001, the United Nations declared the International Year of Volunteers (IYV). On this 10th anniversary (IYV+10), the international volunteer community is commemorating with events and research studies in many countries. Are there any universal truths about the best ways to lead volunteers? Yes…and here are three of them:
1. The more specific you can be about the work that needs to be done, the more likely you will find someone to do it and do it well.
Try never to put out a vague call for “volunteers” or “help.” How can someone tell if they are interested in or qualified to do something without a clear idea of what you want them to do? And how can you feel confident in assigning a role to a volunteer who actually has not agreed to do anything other than “help”?
Often we feel uncomfortable explaining upfront what we really need for fear of not getting anyone to say yes. How illogical. Isn’t it better to have people self-screen themselves out if the role is unappealing, rather than hoping to sign on someone who has not actually committed to the work you are envisioning in your head?
Always tell the truth, unapologetically. You may find that prospective volunteers imagined a role far more complex than the one you were afraid to tell them. Better to live with a vacancy for a while as you seek the right volunteer, than to get a volunteer who is wrong for the work to be done.
The most powerful volunteer recruitment technique is to ask someone to serve, but it’s common to confuse publicity with recruitment. Publicity informs a lot of people at once that something is happening or being offered to them. Recruitment, on the other hand, is delivering an invitation to participate as an active contributor. It has to feel personal.
2. In a time-deprived, speed-accelerating world, most people prefer short-term volunteer roles.
We are living at ever greater speed, in communication with the world 24/7, coping with multiple households after divorce, working two jobs to pay the bills. Who has time to volunteer at something endless?
You will have the greatest success offering volunteer work that has a clear beginning, middle and end – projects that are focused on a goal or end product, not on a long-term time commitment. But the problem is that you also need volunteers to agree to big jobs that require a chunk of time. Can these different views be reconciled?
First, acknowledge that volunteering has a bad reputation as a bottomless pit. People imagine endless, boring meetings, internal politics, paperwork, and wasted time. Often they are right. So if you want to keep volunteers for the long-haul, make sure you are respectful of those who are already active.
A more effective approach is to offer people short-term projects and then ensure they have a great experience completing them. You’ll soon find that satisfied volunteers will ask, “Is there anything else I can do?” or say, “I’d be willing to do that again” – so that you evolve commitment over time.
Almost any long-term activity can be broken down into shorter assignments for many different people, rather than expecting two or three volunteers to do it all. So this approach also prevents burn out of your leadership while cultivating loyal hands-on volunteers.
3. A new volunteer’s earliest interactions with you are the best determinants of ultimate success.
When you recruit volunteers, you are implying that you have work to be done and newcomers will be eager to begin. So if their e-mails or voice messages aren’t answered for over a week, or they are told to come to training next month, or sense that there is no real activity going on, they will feel misled. Make sure someone is designated specifically to reply to any expression of interest in volunteering and to do so in as welcoming a manner as possible.
Most organizations pay attention to a new volunteer’s first committee meeting or day on the job. But it takes longer than that to acclimate someone. For example, who says hello on the volunteer’s second day? Is anyone checking in to make sure the newcomer is feeling good about the work all through the first month of service? When people drop out early and unexpectedly, it is usually for one of three reasons: 1) what they found themselves doing in reality was not what they thought they were being asked to do (and not as appealing); 2) they never felt accepted by the people already on board; or 3) they do not see how their efforts make a difference.
So offer orientation and give relevant information that sets the context for the new volunteer. Develop a buddy system or make sure the newcomer has someone available to answer even the tiny questions. Smile when the person comes in and say goodbye and thank you as they leave – sincerely. Set a positive tone and volunteers will want to be part of your team.
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. Based in Philadelphia since 1977, the firm has helped a wide diversity of clients across North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, Israel, and Australasia to start or expand volunteer efforts. Ellis has written 12 books on volunteerism and dozens of articles. She has written the “On Volunteers” column for The NonProfit Times since 1990. She is co-publisher of the international online journal, e-Volunteerism, and dean of faculty for the online volunteer management training program, Everyone Ready®. Browse the 1200+ pages of free volunteer management information on the Energize web site . Continue the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
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